A healthy lunch box: why it’s important
A healthy lunch box full of fresh food gives your child energy to play, concentrate and learn all day.
What you put in your child’s lunch box depends on your child’s age. And how much you put in your child’s lunch box depends on your child’s appetite and the length of your child’s day.
For example, children who go to child care, preschool or school for 6 hours a day might need to bring food for morning tea and lunch. Children who go for longer periods might also need afternoon tea.
It’s also a good idea to pack a bottle with tap water for your child to drink and refill. Fruit juice and soft drinks are high in sugar and aren’t recommended for children. They can lead to tooth decay and other health problems.
Getting your child involved in choosing, preparing and packing their own lunch will make them more likely to eat it.
Healthy lunch ideas
Packing a lunch box from home means you can offer your child a range of healthy lunch options from the 5 food groups:
- grain foods – for example, bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, rice and corn
- reduced-fat dairy – for example, milk, cheese and yoghurt
- protein foods – for example, lean meat like chicken, fish including canned tuna and salmon, eggs, tofu, nuts and legumes like peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas.
Here are healthy lunch ideas that get the 5 food groups into your child’s lunch box:
- a sandwich with wholegrain bread and a filling like salad, cheese, lean meat or falafel
- different types of grain foods – rye breads, baguettes, seeded rolls, pita bread pockets, flat bread, wraps, foccacia, rice cakes, corn thins or turkish bread
- dips like hummus, tzatziki or beetroot, along with pita, crackers or vegetable sticks for dipping
- potato salad, chickpea salad, quinoa salad, Greek salad or tabbouleh
- leftover pasta, rice and noodle dishes from dinner, kept and eaten cold, kept cold and reheated, or taken in a thermos
- yoghurt and fruit or muesli, kept cold.
If your child won’t eat anything but white bread, try a high-fibre, low-GI loaf. These are more nutritious than white bread and will keep your child feeling full for longer after lunch.
Healthy snack options
Fresh fruit, stewed fruit in natural juice, a small handful of dried fruit, yoghurt, muesli, pieces of cheese, fruit bread, rice cakes, pikelets and wholegrain crackers all make nutritious snacks.
You could also try making your own healthy muffins or cakes using vegetables or fruit – for example, sultanas, carrot, banana, pumpkin or zucchini.
Sweet cakes are best kept for special occasions like birthdays. And always check the food policy at your child’s child care centre or school if you’re thinking of sending a birthday cake to child care or school.
Most families are busy, so it’s good to look for tasty, simple and easy lunch box options. You can make sandwiches or homemade snacks like healthy muffins or pancakes the night before or on the weekend. Freeze them, and then pop them into the lunch box each day.
Sandwich, flat bread and pita bread fillings
A variety of new or unusual fillings can keep your child interested in sandwiches. For example, you could try flat or pita bread with finely sliced carrot, celery, capsicum, snow peas or cucumber. What about cherry tomatoes, corn, beetroot or sprouts with dips? Or add grated carrot, zucchini, sliced red cabbage, raisins or sultanas, sliced apple or fresh herbs.
Here are more ideas.
Vegetarian sandwich options
- Cheese and grated carrot
- Cheese, pineapple (drained and patted dry with kitchen paper) and lettuce
- Cheese and chutney or sliced gherkin (pickled cucumber)
- Cottage cheese or ricotta and chives or dates
- Mashed or curried egg with chives, dill or parsley and lettuce
- Omelette, tomato and rocket
- Apple and raisin
- Banana, sultanas and ricotta cheese
- Avocado (sprinkled with lemon juice to stop it going brown), tomato and coriander
- Seasoned and baked tofu (available ready made).
- Falafel or lentil patties, lettuce and tomato
Sandwich fillings using meat and fish
- Chicken (well cooked, fresh and kept cold), mayo and celery
- Chicken, pesto and red capsicum
- Leftover meat from last night’s dinner, tomato and cucumber
- Drained canned tuna, stuffed green olives and tomato
- Drained canned tuna and mashed avocado
Foods to keep out of lunch boxes
Meats like salami, mortadella, Strasburg, smoked turkey and pastrami are highly processed and salty. They can also be high in fat. You might want to save these for every now and then, rather than packing them every day.
Check the ‘allowable’ foods policy at your child’s centre, preschool or school. Many centres and schools ask that you don’t pack certain foods – for example, eggs or anything with nuts. This is to protect children with allergies from coming into contact with those foods.
Some children are happy with the same lunch most days. Others might prefer a change from time to time. Get more lunch ideas by watching our videos on preparing healthy lunch boxes together, preparing lunch boxes before school, preparing lunches at mealtime, sandwiches and leftovers and wraps.
Encouraging children to eat their lunches
Children usually want to eat quickly so that they can play. These ideas make things easy for them.
Keep it simple
- Choose foods that are simple and easy to eat. Some children might have trouble opening fiddly packaging, or they might avoid foods that make their hands sticky.
- Make sure that containers seal well but can be opened easily – do a test at home. It might be that your child isn’t eating lunch because it’s hard to get at!
Keep it small and easy to handle
- Cut bread into thin slices.
- Cut sandwiches into quarters to make them easier to manage.
- Use less rather than more sandwich filling.
- Include small fruits like strawberries, blueberries and grapes.
- Cut larger fruits like oranges, watermelon and rockmelon into pieces that your child can eat easily and quickly.
- Avoid soggy sandwiches by keeping spreads to a minimum and removing seeds from tomatoes.
- Drain excess juices from fresh fruit and anything that comes in liquid – for example, tinned fruit, tinned beans and tinned tuna.
- Use reusable containers or wraps to minimise waste.
If there’s no other choice, your child is more likely to eat the healthy food you’ve packed. So avoid packing sweet treats like cakes and biscuits, as well as high-salt or high-fat treats like packets of chips.
Check the food labels on any packaged foods you put into your child’s lunch box. Healthy lunch box options are low in sugar, fat and salt.
Keeping food fresh and safe
Before preparing your child’s lunch box, always wash your hands well with warm soapy water. Make sure all chopping boards and utensils are clean and dry.
Any lunch box containing meat, fish, chicken, eggs, noodles, rice, pasta, yoghurt, cheese or milk needs to be kept cold, so choose an insulated lunch box or one that can fit a freezer pack or small bottle of frozen water. This will stop the growth of harmful bacteria, which could make your child sick.
Also make sure to check the use-by date for items like yoghurt and milk.
If you make your child’s lunch the night before, put it in the fridge (below 5°C) straight away. In the morning, add a bottle of frozen water to the lunch box to keep it cool until lunch time.
If you’re packing a warm food like soup, heat it up in the morning and pack in a thermos – it will still be warm at lunch time. Add a wholemeal or multigrain bread roll for extra fibre.
If you follow these steps, it’ll help your child avoid food poisoning.
When you’re buying lunch boxes, choose ones that are easy to clean and dry. Insulated lunch boxes are great, but they can sometimes be hard to keep clean.